Thursday, August 5, 2010

Handicapped, Part 2

On the train to our concourse, I sit down, mindful that I am to relinquish my seat for the elderly or impaired. I pull the stroller close to me, and whisper to James. But I’m not concentrating on our conversation; I’m staring at the motley collection of human beings crowding aboard, watching their interactions with each other. A kind look here; a rude scowl there.  Fascinating.

We get off, and our guide takes us to the special elevator. We wait and wait, but it’s evidently not working. He takes us down the corridor to another one, but tells us “It’s slow.” Luckily, we arrive there seconds before a long line of wheelchairs forms behind us. “It’s slow,” our Ethiopian gentleman reiterates to the other wheelchair attendants. We wait and wait some more. Finally, the door opens. A beautiful able-bodied young woman gets off, giving us a little shrug as she exits. “Lazy much?” Grace inquires under her breath. The other wheelchair-bound passengers sigh as our entourage fills the tiny space. They’ll have to wait some more.

Emerging onto Concourse D, our long-suffering helper sighs himself as he tells us, “It’s the last one.” I find myself apologizing to him, spewing stupid Southern inanities like, “I’m so sorry. I bet you didn’t know what you were getting into when they called you to help us.” He looks at me with the patience of Job and starts pushing to the last gate.

By this point, we’re starting to panic a bit. Outdoor Counter Man told us at the beginning of this saga that we didn’t have seat assignments. We were advised to get to the counter at the gate ASAP and explain our situation. And hope for the best in terms of sitting together. Actually, he told us that there were no seats together. So I start sprinting ahead of everyone.

Fortunately…providentially… generously… (or perhaps because of the adequately greased palm) O.C.M. has evidently called ahead and informed the airline representatives of our situation. They inform us that three of us may sit together. The fourth is right across the aisle. Gratefully, I drop another large bill on our guide and we God Bless him as he leaves.

The knot in my stomach begins to unfurl for a second until I look around and discover that there are no seats left in the waiting area. We have eight carry-on items (the allowed limit for four passengers), a wheelchair, 4-footed cane, and stroller. But there is nowhere to go with it all.

So we stay in front of the counter, virtually blocking the way for any other passengers. There are seats perpendicular to it, but not enough for our group. I look around. Then I walk around, beseeching people with my eyes.

But this is a tough and hardened group heading to LA. There are no men there like my husband, who would immediately jump up out of his seat to help a woman in obvious need. Instead, there are just blank stares and averted eyes. Virtually everyone in the area talks very loudly about personal matters on their cell phone. Some very personal matters. (Does this young woman not realize that I’m listening to her talk about her sex life? Does she not care???)

Evidently not.

There are two seats available on the perpendicular row. I try to jam the wheelchair and stroller in as far as they’ll go in front of them. Grace and I stack the carry-on in the seats. Two irritable and obese people occupy the seats to our immediate left. One, the woman, speaks no English. They stare at us without speaking…without a twinkle of acknowledgement that there’s an adorable little boy with us… as they morosely, but concentratedly, consume a bag of Burger King Whoppers and fries.  I almost want to wave my hand in front of the woman’s face to make sure she’s really there. That someone’s in there.

Leave it to my Pollyanna. As the steam pours out of my ears, I hear Katherine addressing the couple. “Excuse me. Are we in your way? I’m sorry if we are. I’ve had a brain injury, so traveling is difficult. I hope we’re not crowding you.”

I excuse myself to the Ladies Room.

But then I panic that we’ll be called to board. “Special Needs and Young Children” are boarded first.  As I wait in the Burger King line to order the fries for which my grandson has been avidly pleading since seeing them consumed with such vigor by our friendly neighbors, I text Katherine. She responds, “We’re boarding now.”

Mimi don’t run.

But Mimi ran.

Like I was in Chariots of Fire.   Big leaps. In a skirt.

Everyone is waiting for us to board first. Unfortunately, Katherine has requested that her sister go find her a Starbucks. The airline reps say, “Are we ready now?” “Yes, of course,” I say, as I start kicking the eight bags down the 100+ degree walkway to the plane, while pushing James’ stroller with one hand and texting Grace frantic, mean messages with the other. The other passengers crowd around, stepping on my heels, one actually almost tripping me.

A woman behind the desk comes out and offers to push James. Grace comes running down the Concourse, Starbucks splashing. We get to the bottom of the gangplank. Wobbly wildly, Katherine tries to board the plane by herself, as I attempt to get the wheelchair and stroller folded up. The roll-aboards topple over, obstructing the path of the other passengers who will not wait for us to board. (As if the plane will take off earlier if they push and step over us.)

Finally, we’re seated: Katherine in the window seat, James in the middle, me on the aisle. But we discover that Grace isn’t really directly across from us: she’s in the middle seat across the aisle.

I tell my daughters I will handle it. NO ONE in our family likes to be assertive. But by this point, my adrenalin is so high that I have no doubt that I will be up to the task.

We are in the bulkhead of Economy Class. Countless random types pass us by… each one a possibility. I try to guess which one might be my potential adversary.  Finally, a patrician-looking octogenarian comes up and looks at Grace. “You’re in my seat,” she announces regally.

But I am ready.

I stand up and get right in her face.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but I must ask you a huge favor. I am traveling with my handicapped daughter and her two-year-old son, and I need for my other daughter to be next to me to help. Would you mind changing seats with her?”

I wait expectantly for a gracious, “Yes, of course,” which my mother, who is also an octogenarian, would give under even vaguely similar circumstances, NO MATTER WHAT. Totally inconceivable that our octogenarian would respond in any other possible way.

“No,” this one answers, “I’m 80 years old and I have a bad back, and I will not sit in the middle seat.”


Okay. Breathe deeply. Think of something peaceful and beautiful. This is only a millisecond of Eternity. Use the “One Free Drink” voucher that your husband gave you.

Everything’s okay.

Everybody’s okay.

Except they’re not.

That 80’s book was a lie.

The truth is: I’m not okay, you’re not okay.

We are really not okay. None of us.

No, not one is righteous. Not even one. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

I sit back down in my seat, stunned by the violence of the day. I look at the faces passing by: the anger, the stress, the exhaustion, the feckless hope, the innocence.

I look at my first-born child, happily texting away as we await the final preparations for take-off, her son between us.

And I realize something.

Everyone on that plane is handicapped.

We might not all have a special blue parking permit, a wheelchair, or a sign on our heads, but we are handicapped, disabled, deformed, nevertheless…

By fear… or anger… or selfishness… or self-hatred…

despair… loneliness… perfectionism… prejudice… emptiness… pride… perversion… addiction…

or a lack of love.

And we are all deserving of compassion and aid.


I go back to an old favorite quote of G.K. Chesterton: “We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”

The rest of the story: The octogenarian ended up being nice, and got up as many times as necessary so that Grace could help with James when I took Katherine to the ladies’ room, etc.

Getting off the plane was even worse than getting on, but a Good Samaritan finally intervened and helped us.

I always wondered about this before…when to offer to help. I think many of us are wary of offending those who must value their independence and are accustomed to dealing with the challenges of their situation. My opinion after this experience and others like it: When in doubt, do.


Trish said...

I wanted to cry when I read this. How can people not care about each other? I always try to help when I see someone in need of assistance because I do wonder "what if it were me?" Bless you and your family and I'm glad you had safe travels.


Joy said...

Thank you for these very powerful and brave words.

I appreciate your perspective, as someone relatively new to this experience. You have given me much to think about.

Continuing to pray for Katherine's restoration. She is an incredible inspiration.

I appreciate your willingness to tell this story more than I can say.

Blessings and peace to you all.

Anonymous said...

Yes, we are all handicapped and boy did I need that reminder today!
And also the reminder to pray for eyes to see the needs around me. Lord, heal my "I" disease.

JRT said...


This is an amazing piece.

I don't know exactly how to respond, other than to say thank you for your honesty.

I need to hear these things.

Amanda said...

I feel as if I'm there on the front row with you.

You have answered many unasked questions. I feel sure that this post will change the way I interact with people. (Maybe make me interact with people I might not have in the past.)

Thank you for this glimpse into your new reality.

Kim said...

Wow. This blog should be sent in to the LA Times for people to read, or any other publication that alerts people to consider others - in any small way.

Your experience reminded me of something I viewed when driving to Hollywood the other day. A young woman in a wheelchair was attempting to get across a busy 4-lane boulevard and encountered a slight incline in the crosswalk. She got stuck in the middle and starting rolling backward - and the light turned green. I was in the opposing intersection in my car, unable to do anything but pray that one of the PEOPLE standing on the corners would help her!

I panicked for her, praying; would ANYONE standing on the corner waiting to cross would help her get out of the crosswalk as the horns blared impatiently? FInally, a young boy sprinted from across the opposite intersection to push her wheelchair out of the crosswalk onto the sidewalk. It brought tears to my eyes - and I have not been able to get that image out of my mind - and now I read your blog.

God help us to be "the one to rescue" when someone is in need. I'm praying that God will open our eyes to be different - every day.

Donna said...

Oh, Kim, my heart aches after reading this post. I feel so sorry for all those people that did not offer to help. They are the ones missing out on the blessing they would have received if they had stepped up to help. There is nothing like the good feeling we get when we help those in need. It takes the focus off of ourselves and our selfish needs.

Anonymous said...

Forgive us Kim. We are all handicapped. I will keep a look out for you, and everyone else that needs it as I go about in these dark days. Next time come through Richmond--I promise I'll come to the airport just to help you. Thank you for such an incredibly poignant post. (And maybe one day soon I will tell you about my yesterday--I think you would appreciate it. Amazing beauty in the midst of incredible heartache. But for now my heart still aches a bit too much. Hugs to you and your wonderful family.

Abby said...

I just read your post to Findley and we laughed so hard about airport security. Every time we fly with Virginia, we swear that next time we are chartering a plane. They take her (a six year old, don't forget) away from us to check her for explosives in her wheelchair. Usually, I can't get through the line fast enough to be with her. We have bags of medicine, a cooler of pureed food for her to eat at our destination, and letters from doctors allowing us to have all these things on the plane. And since V can't sit alone, we also have to carry her car seat with us to strap in the plane seat since no airlines have spots for individuals to sit in their wheelchairs. Apparently the airlines (and this is true- I am not being sarcastic) are one of the only industries exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act. So eventually, we really will have to charter a plane to fly because she'll be too big for a car seat.
Whenever I am in public, I am both amazed at the kindness and love of some and devastated and angered by the cold heartedness of others. I remember the man who gave Jay and Katherine $100 in an airport about a year ago. That is in stark contrast to what you saw this past trip.
I still have trouble with the realization my baby is handicapped. Even writing that sentence stings a little. Maybe it always will?
Praying for Katherine (and you) always. Thanks for a having a sense of humor about the airlines. When we get our plane, y'all are welcome to use it any time! (Ha!)

Linda Abney said...

Dear One,
This weekend was an encouragement to me. It was the dreaded 50th high school reunion and, even though I've only been to one other, I thought I would swallow my pride/nervousness/fear of rejection and attend. I was wonderfully surprised by the attitudes of those bright and talented graduates who attended. Long gone was any attitude of "better than"(if it was ever really there). As I surveyed the rooms I was so aware of the hearts of my former classmates. Everyone was glad to see the other. We ALL had aged. And, it was o.k. No one seemed to notice what someone else was wearing. They all just seemed glad to be alive as it was announced that 1/4 of our class were deceased. Each one appreciated the other. There is hope for us who have always wondered if we are "o.k."
When my sister suggested I read "I'm o.k.,you're o.k." years ago I saw it as psychological solutions to a spiritual condition. I agree on one level that none of us is o.k. and there is only One who can show us out of our predicament. But, on the other hand we are very o.k. because we are made in His image and can reflect His glory. He died for us because to him we are each priceless treasures(even though we have such a hard time believing that).
I don't know where all this rambling in taking me but I am so grieved that you had the very painful experience on the return trip home. What you and your precious loved ones are going through is horribly painful. But, the encouragement you and yours are giving others is life changing. Great will be your crowns in Heaven.
Love, L.A.

Danny & Allison said...

Oh, Kim! I'm so sorry it was more chaotic than usual:) We traveled with Danny back in 2007 and I was so nervous, I got sick in the airport bathroom. You're right, though, on many counts, but especially that we're all handicapped. Some people are so afraid to say anything or help for fear of the unknown. There are thankfully those who will get out of their comfort zones, those who will break free from the "all about me" syndrome and offer assistance. I know it was crazy and difficult, but girlfriend, you made it through another day. And, sometimes, that is the best we can hope for. My prayers always, Allison

Anonymous said...

It has been more than 6 years since I have travelled via airplane (I'm more of a terra firma person so I drive). I thought things were challenging post-911 (last time I flew), but now it's simply an insane process - and that's for those with the least encumbrances!

Kim, I'm so sorry for what you experienced! My recent experience at the airport was a reminder that our society has become very inhumane. God forgive us that we are so inward focused and do not reach out with kindness and compassion to those around us! Thank you for reminding us that we must be ever vigilent to literally open our eyes to the need around us and then be willing to respond.